WASHINGTON – After months of cooperation on a popular strategic partnership bill, politics has frozen progress on legislation that would strengthen ties between Israel and the United States.
The US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, under the scalpel in Congress since March of last year, was taken off the Senate agenda after top Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee attached an amendment that would have triggered hearings on any deal reached between world powers and Iran over its nuclear program.
High-level negotiations are under way in Vienna on that issue, where the US, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany are trying to forge a comprehensive agreement that will end concerns over military dimensions to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear progress.
Members of Congress are skeptical Iran’s leaders are genuine negotiating partners.
Congress is responsible for legislating nuclear- related sanctions against Iran – and should a deal come to pass, the lawmakers will be called upon to undo that infrastructure. But Congress is unlikely to have veto power over the Iran deal. While the legislature has the power to ratify treaties, any agreement reached in Vienna will not be labeled as such.
“There’s going to be some kind of vote on relieving or not relieving sanctions,” one Senate aide said.
Corker’s amendment, introduced on Thursday, is nonbinding and would instead call for hearings on a deal that would give Congress the opportunity to declare its disapproval.
The proposal comes five-and-a-half months before midterm elections in the US, and challenges the White House to oppose a largely bipartisan effort: the US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act.
“You are, unfortunately, seeing a politicization of the bill,” the aide continued. “We’re not even talking about the bill anymore.”
At a hearing on Tuesday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) said the amendment came as a surprise to him – and that he feared it would detract from a more significant vote to come, on whether or not to abide by a deal brokered in Vienna by the Obama administration.
Menendez said such a vote would be “very significant” and would reflect the approval, or disapproval, of the legislature.
Corker defended the amendment, saying it should not have stalled the Israel legislation, saying the amendment contained “the most watered-down” language yet proposed on Iran.
Any bill on strategic cooperation with Israel would be remiss to overlook negotiations with Iran, Corker told his colleagues.
Menendez, author of a sanctions bill that would have triggered new penalties against Iran should negotiations fail, was blindsided by the amendment, sources told The Jerusalem Post.
The Iran language “had not come up in months of drafting,” one senior staff member said. “Everyone was working in partnership on the contents of the bill itself. And in the eleventh hour, there was this amendment.”
Before the amendment was introduced, the bill had garnered 61 co-sponsors in the 100-member Senate.
To move the bill forward independent of Corker’s language on Iran, leadership in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is now discussing a separate piece of legislation that would serve as an “oversight bill.”
The bill, separate from efforts to trigger new sanctions or to foster US-Israel relations, would outline Congress’s role in policing any agreement with Tehran.
A source with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which pushed forcefully for the partnership bill, suggested the parties were looking to reconcile the two priorities.
“AIPAC supports provisions such as the Corker Amendment, which underscore the key role that Congress must play in defining the terms of an acceptable deal and its implementation,” the AIPAC source said. “We continue to support the Strategic Partnership Act and will work with members of the committee for opportunities to move the legislation forward.”